Sunday, September 18, 2011

George Benson: Talkin' Verve (1997)

Like the Buddy Greco, this disc represents an exceedingly small, and commercially relatively minor, slice of the artist's oeuvre;  in this case the two albums George Benson recorded under his own name for Verve in 1968, plus one track from his guest shot on a Jimmy Smith album that year.  This isn't quite Benson's earliest stuff, but it's several years before he became the pop superstar some of us remember from the '70s.

Also, and this doesn't show up in the liner notes, but this music represents a pivotal moment in the evolution of Verve Records;  Benson seems to have been brought to Verve to replace Wes Montgomery, who had followed Creed Taylor to A&M;  after Montgomery's death, Taylor would sign Benson to his new label, CTI.  What's on this disc, then, represents Verve's attempts to extend the Wes Montgomery pop-jazz vision into the late '60s without Wes, and Benson's establishment as the kind of pop-oriented jazzer that the CTI empire would be built on, in Wes's wake.

All of which might lead one to expect this disc to be nothing but imitations of Montgomery.  It's not.  There are unmistakeable similarities in sound - both in Benson's stringwork and the arrangements.  But fundamentally Benson is a bluesier player, more comfortable with contemporary soul and r&b, even rock.  As the cover photo suggests, some of the more down-home moments here ("Some Of My Best Friends Are Blues," the meeting with Smith;  Benson's vocal showcase "That Lucky Old Sun";  "Giblet Gravy") are greasier and more viscerally satisfying than Wes's work usually was. 

On the other hand:  some of this stuff is straight-up Easy Listening.  The kind of music that brings back memories of riding with your grandma in her avocado-green Pontiac boat, frosty inside from the a/c while the August sun bleaches the streets outside, you twelve and restless on nylon seats that make you shiver if you scratch them with a fingernail, astonished that the radio, this magic machine that you only just discovered, can play queasy squishy music like this as well as AC/DC and Led Zep - like, it's weird to think that the same air that carries that can conceal this as well, music as comfortable as a pair of Haggar stretch-slacks, and just as surrenderful...

That is, Verve gave Benson arrangements that built on Wes's lime-cool vibe, but in a less tasteful way.  With even more strings, with Nashville harmonica, with the Sweet Inspirations cooing their way through "Natural Woman."  I'm 41 now, not twelve, but I still don't know if I'm ready for this.

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